Mention ‘summit’ and instinctively you conjure up the idea of heads of state flying across the globe to ‘sort out problems’. So, when theManufacturing Summit organised by the IET in London on April 18 was announced, I was determined to attend to learn more about the issues at stake and the state of this sector.
What most people forget is that when heads of state meet up for such events, all the groundwork has already been done by their civil servants. In most instances they merely shake a few hands and sign on the dotted lines. Indeed, civil servants often dread these occasions as less empirical factors such as personalities may destroy months of hard work. Nevertheless, the success of a summit depends more on advance preparations than the event itself.
So, to expect that another summit on manufacturing would finally provide the answer to this sector’s long term ills was something nobody in their right minds expected to achieve. The event therefore turned out to be more like a sounding board, to determine mainly if some of the previously announced milestones had in fact been met and how the UK could pick up the pieces, following decades of neglect by Governments of all political persuasions.
If you don’t want to read a full report on the day’s event now skip to the concluding section.
Full report – you may skip!
The IET Summit opened with a cogent appraisal of the situation by the Editor of Works Management, Max Gosney, who introduced the main panel made up of the great and the good in this sector. The first of these was a representative of BAE, followed by Lord Younger, who expatiated on the government’s own perspective. Some of the recent government plans emphasised intellectual property as a key issue for growth, as well as adding that there were macro and micro economic issues – something that we are all familiar with by now – and that these had influenced the performance of the manufacturing sector. Plans to create University Technology Colleges, decades after politicians shut down Polytechnics, simply showed how out of touch you can become once you are in government. Lord Younger in addition mentioned the kind of ribbon-cutting schemes involving the big industrial corporations such as BAE, Jaguar and so on that governments like to quote on these occasions.
The EEF Chief Economist, Lee Hopley, raised the standard of debate with a faultless overview of the current situation and the need to rebalance the UK economy by giving the manufacturing sector much more support in terms of access to finances, long-term cross-party political strategies (something that had already been mentioned in the Heseltine report). Hopley concluded with a gaze at the economic crystal ball, which showed a stagnant performance across the EU, some positive moves in the US and the BRIC economies, and named Japan a possible dark horse. According to Hopley, the prospects were rosier for the UK sector, though growth would continue to be weak and there were too many uncertainties on some fronts such as energy and, of course, access to skilled labour. The topic of productivity was debated, when the usual old chestnut that English workers are lazy (expressed in less strident terms by a delegate) was aired and thankfully shunned by Hopley, who, in essence, told delegates that one of the key factors for reduced UK productivity was more closely linked to decades of neglect in terms of capital investment, rather than an unwillingness to engage and perform on the part of our labour forces.
The rest of the morning sessions were presented by representatives from the Business Growth Fund (for businesses that require investment between £2 and £20M), Renishaw, with a somewhat lacklustre presentation of this highly successful company that did little to add buzz to the manufacturing sector, and finally an amazingly vibrant and passionate presentation by probably the smallest SME in the entire audience: HK Timbers, a company that makes potato storage crates and which has seen an amazing increase in turnover and efficiency thanks to its charismatic new business director.
The afternoon panel was opened by the VP of IET, introducing key success factors for growth, such as capital, focussed management and so on. His oration was followed by Chris White MP who, however, only had 20 minutes before leaving for the House to vote. His presentation and subsequent very brief Q&A session pivoted on the need for cross party support. The other panel members were from small and large companies, as well as facilitators like Catapult Innovation Centres and BFG (again). The debate, however, was less than lively to start with, partly due to post-prandial fatigue, information overload and, frankly, the fact that many of the themes in question had already been debated in the morning, so it just seemed like a somewhat repetitious exercise.
Nonetheless, some interesting topics were (painstakingly) developed, like the need for collaboration among manufacturers of all sizes particularly in order to create lean processes and improvement in the supply chain. This subject was also taken up by the representative of Siemens, who stated that big businesses has a responsibility towards SMEs, something that one would hope isn’t just limited to forming collaborative groups to reduce costs, but also to ensuring prompt settlement of invoices by large groups. A member of the audience introduced the possibility that manufacturing requires a greater multidisciplinary approach, a topic that engineers have been shy to develop. Other panel and audience members expressed concern about the role of universities and in particular their continued lack of understanding of how businesses and IP issues operate. Lack of understanding cut across some government departments too and that made the process of accessing and processing grants an unviable proposition for many organisations, especially small ones.
So, what was that all about? During the short lunch break some of the delegates expressed concern about the overall objective of the exercise and the fact that many of those had been discussed almost ad nauseam before. However, judging by the the age of the audience, as well as its gender, it was clear that, demographically, manufacturing continues to have a big problem and that it will require a really big effort to in order to appeal to broader sectors of the UK population.
This takes me neatly to the topic of sectoral perception. Everyone I spoke to complained that the term ‘engineer’ has negative connotations in the UK. In Germany and many other countries, the title ‘engineer’ comes with kudos (and pay) similar to that of a GP – not so in the UK. But how can you change such perception when even senior practitioners themselves fail to see how important it is to present information in a manner that truly engages and appeals to the public at large? How can you make engineering ‘sexy’ when you start from the premise of introducing processes that could per se be highly appealing if you only focus on their driest technical features? While such an approach may win a contract, it may not be enough to engage with prospective future engineers, or the general public… And without public engagement, politicians will also find other more appealing outlets for their own interests, thus backfeeding into this negative cycle of perception. When you then add to this scenario the endemic short-term political approach to macroeconomic strategy prevalent in this country, the need for presenting manufacturing more engagingly, attractively and vibrantly becomes even more paramount.
Ultimately, going back to the the same old discussion topics, or even appealing to politicians for a solution will not help. Let’s not forget that politicians themselves are suffering from a lack of engagement, with voters numbers declining rapidly, election by election. So, if Britain really wants to change and become a manufacturing leader again it has to look to the future and not the past. Its diversity is one of its assets, its depth of knowledge, ingenuity (of the kind advocated by campaigning groups such as Ingenious Britain), multi sector collaboration, but also self-belief and passion are going to be decisive factors in this process. Do we want a really successful UK manufacturing sector? If so we must ignite the passion, ditch the grey suits and bring some colour, and colourful characters, back into it. Finally, engineers need to admit to themselves that while they may excel at what they do, they also need ‘softer’ skills in order to communicate and engage professionally in the manner that is expected of them in the 21st century.